The first few weeks of the 2016 MLB season were almost like an experiment for Terry Francona and the rest of the Cleveland Indians coaching staff.
With Rajai Davis, Francisco Lindor, and even Jose Ramirez serving as the various leadoff hitters through the early days of the campaign, the question remained as to who could consistently shoulder the workload atop Francona’s starting nine.
That question was answered on April 22, 2016, the day Carlos Santana was slotted in as the leadoff hitter.
While he certainly does not profile as a prototypical bunt and steal kind of leadoff man, Santana’s on-base percentage and high walk rate made him a fit for the job. Add in a career-low in strikeouts and an alarming amount of home runs (34) and RBIs (87), and Santana’s equation for a fulfilling regular season was complete.
As a key young piece of the 2008 trade that sent Casey Blake to the Dodgers, Santana excelled in his new 2016 role with a .366 on-base percentage, the eighth highest mark in the American League.
The former catcher has drawn criticism over the last couple of years for his poor batting averages and high strikeout totals. After all, Santana batted .231 in consecutive years and struck out on 246 different occasions between 2014 and 2015.
Nevertheless, the Dominican born switch-hitter possesses enough power to be a franchise player. In fact, Santana has never hit fewer than 18 home runs in a full season in the big leagues.
In addition to his 2016 career bests in home runs and RBIs, Santana set personal records in games played (158), at bats (582), runs (89), hits (89), total bases (290), triples (10), slugging percentage (.498) and OPS (.868).
"This is my house (Progressive Field)," Santana said after a postseason victory. "I'm really happy and hungry to play hard every day. We have to continue."
Most of Santana’s power numbers came from the left side of the plate with 30 home runs and 68 RBIs. From the right side, Santana goes with an approach centered on making contact and putting the ball in play. His average was 11 points higher and he typically batted in the fifth spot in the batting order against left-handed pitching.
Once May approached, Francona ended his early-season experiment and elected to put Santana in a full-time role as the leadoff hitter in opposition to right-handed hurlers.
Santana engages a patient approach at the plate and tends to work the count in his favor so he can unleash his power-hitting capabilities. With an average exit velocity of 92.16 (2.59 mph faster than the league average), Santana has truly become a matchup nightmare for opposing pitchers.
Joining Mike Napoli in reaching the 30 home run plateau, Santana and Napoli became the second Indians duo to achieve such a milestone since Jim Thome (52 home runs) and Ellis Burks (32 home runs) attained the achievement back in 2002.
“I’m so happy, especially today,” Santana said after belting his 30th bomb of the campaign. “He (Napoli) told me to keep working. I’m happy for him, he did a good job too.”
The duo had solidified themselves as reliable power options among the top half of the everyday lineup.
Beyond his strength, Santana has grown as a defender with experience at an assortment of positions including catcher, first base, third base and even left field.
By compiling a double-digit total of passed balls and showing an inability to throw runners out in stealing situations behind the dish, not to mention recurring concussion issues, the organization promptly moved him to his new primary position as a first baseman.
This time around, the experiment worked.
Santana has committed 14 defensive blunders over the last four seasons to go along with his 203 assists and 258 double plays.
With Napoli taking over as the everyday first baseman in 2016, Santana played an essential role in backing up his teammate and providing him with an occasional off-day from playing in the field.
The collaborative effort of the two was not only used for defensive purposes, but also showcased two of the best Cleveland Indians power hitters over the last 14 years.
John Alfes has covered the Indians for IBI since August of 2016. Follow him on Twitter @JohnAlfes for breaking news and in-depth coverage all season long.